How one Israeli company is changing the world of cancer treatment

Biotech company NeoTXis' Tumor Targeted Superantigen (TTS) technology works to kill cancer cells in a way that no other available cancer treatment can.

Two genetically engineered T Cells (light green) attacking a cancer cell in red. (photo credit: TILDA BARLIYA/ASTAR SHAMUL/CYRILLE COHEN)
Two genetically engineered T Cells (light green) attacking a cancer cell in red.
(photo credit: TILDA BARLIYA/ASTAR SHAMUL/CYRILLE COHEN)

In the ever-evolving and developing world of cancer treatment, Israeli biotech company NeoTX is working to change the game. 

Founded in 2014 by CEO and director Asher Nathan, NeoTX is currently in phase two trials for their groundbreaking tumor-targeted superantigen (TTS) technology, which works to kill cancer cells in a way that no currently available cancer treatment is able to.

The TTS platform works by coating the tumor in the patient’s body with a genetically engineered bacteria known as a superantigen. This then elicits an antibacterial immune system response which, while working to fight the bacteria, also fights against the tumor.

The current treatment limitations

“Every day, on average a person has several cells in his body that are cancerous,” Nathan explained to The Jerusalem Post. “And every day, our immune system kills them. So the idea of modulating that immune response so that it will kill the tumor made a lot of sense.”

One of the cancer treatment methods used widely today, even overtaking more traditional chemotherapy treatment in some cases, is the use of checkpoint inhibitors. Checkpoint inhibitors are used to treat cancers such as skin and lung cancer, and they do what their name suggests: block proteins that stop the immune system from attacking the cancer cells.

 NeoTX CEO Asher Nathan. (credit: NEOTX) NeoTX CEO Asher Nathan. (credit: NEOTX)

However, Nathan explained, they have much room for improvement, as less than a third of patients that use these drugs experience long-term relief from cancer.

And that’s where NeoTX comes in.

How does TTS work?

“The immune system is highly complex, maybe one of the most complex systems in the universe,” Nathan said, explaining the history of his company and the goal his team is working to meet.

“And you say, OK, well, I’m going to focus here, and I’m going to touch it there and push this up and push this down. And it might have an effect that most of us, we really don’t understand, it’s too complex. So what we wanted to do is create an immune response that was more holistic.

What NeoTX aims to do, he continues, is extract the immune cells and “turbocharge” them using bacteria.

“The idea was to use bacteria, which is natural in that all our bodies are finely tuned in order to fight bacterial infections. That’s why when you have a bacterial infection... you know you can rely on your immune system to kill it.

“So the idea is to take a molecule that can be seen easily by the immune system as it’s from bacteria, and stick it to the tumor, essentially coding the tumor as bacteria.”

IN DOING SO, the patient’s immune system changes its response from a weak anti-tumoral one that cannot properly fight the tumor, to a stronger antibacterial one that is equipped to fight the tumor, as it recognizes it to be bacteria.

“This modulates the immune system in very specific ways that are absolutely essential to killing the tumor and creating long-term memory responses that we’d like to see in order to have these responses last for a long time.”

A Nobel Prize winner on board 

Asked about the process and how far along the expected development timeline the drug currently is, Nathan explained that it is currently undergoing phase two trials, after the drug successfully passed all the phase one safety trials last year.

“We’ve also seen some very unusual and unexpected long term responses from patients that you would not expect from immune-modulating drugs,” he said, adding that “some of these responses have lasted for more than two years. We’re really excited about the prospects.”

And, he continued, it will be possible to use this technology to treat multiple types of cancers, something which checkpoint inhibitors are not able to do.

If phase two trials are successful, he said, a registrational phase three trial could begin for the drug, and it could receive accelerated approval and be put on the market as early as 2024, although it is too soon to know for sure.

Working alongside Nathan on the team developing this technology are chief scientist Prof. Roger Kornberg, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; and medical oncologist and NeoTX president Dr. Marcel Rozencweig.

Having a good team was one of the most important aspects for Nathan when setting up the company to begin research and development.

“A good team could take a mediocre drug and make it great, whereas a poor team could take the best drug and mess it up,” he explained. “So I started the company with people who have, really, a lot of experience.”

Besides Kornberg and Rozencweig, the team is composed of several people with a history in both biotech, R&D and finance.

CFO and COO Robert Harrow co-founded Zoticon BioVentures, which has invested over $100 million to date in promising phase III therapeutics including two oncology products and a cardiovascular.

Meanwhile, chief regulatory officer Ramona Lloyd has over 25 years of experience in global regulatory affairs and quality assurance and has led or directed teams working on over a dozen small molecule, biologic and biologic/device combination products.

The second element to the project that Nathan considered essential was to ensure that the work done by NeoTX is unique and different to what already existed.

“We wanted to do something different, and to make sure we weren’t copying anything that’s been done in the past,” he said.

NeoTX currently has multiple collaborations with institutions such as the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and AstraZeneca, indicating that, just as they hoped, they have succeeded in their goal of creating something unique.

“We have many collaborations including with…AstraZeneca, who have a checkpoint inhibitor,” said Nathan. “We’re doing trials [with them] because we believe that their checkpoint inhibitor might help make our drug even better.”